Conversation with Kairus Tarapore
This is Ken Forster, Executive Director at Momenta. Welcome to our Digital Thread Podcasts, produced by, for, and about digital industry leaders. In this series of conversations, we capture insights from the best and brightest minds in digital industry, they are executives, entrepreneurs, advisers, and other thought leaders. What they have in common is like our team at Momenta they are deep industry operators. We hope you find these podcasts informative, and as always, we welcome your comments and suggestions.
Good day and welcome to episode 146 of our Momenta Digital Thread Podcast Series. Today is my great pleasure to introduce Kairus Tarapore, former Chief Human Resources Officer at Xylem, a leading global water technology company committed to developing innovative technology solutions to the world's water and critical infrastructure challenges.
For more than 30 years Kairus has provided human resources, executive leadership across industry-leading companies, such as Xylem, Babcock, & Wilcox, Ceridian, and General Electric. He served across the US, Canada, and India with cross-functional experience across sales, marketing, supply chain and lean Six Sigma quality. Kairus welcome to our Digital Thread Podcast.
Hi Ken, thank you. Thank you for having me and good morning, good evening, good day to all the listeners, it's my pleasure.
And it's our pleasure to have you today, and I so appreciate you taking the time. I always like to start off really describing a little bit of your own, what I'll call digital threads. In other words, the one or more thematic threads that define your industry journey. What would you consider to be your digital thread Kairus?
For me Ken, I was thinking about this question, for me digital is actionable insight, and that's the way I think about it because there could be so many different sorts of meanings of what that is. And my first sort of exposure to the power of digital or the digital thread as you called it, was when I was with GE Fleet Services, and this was back in probably 2003, 2004, we had just started a fledgling telematics operation that time, we had these fleets of trucks and vehicles that clients used. And those were the early days of telematics and using telematics as a way to optimize performance and drive greater insight and productivity, etc.
Since then, in every role that I've had or every business that I've had, there's always been some way to get to data and to try and leverage that data, to create some sort of intelligence or insights. So, when I was with my next company, which was Ceridian, and we had a Comdata, which was like a payment business, and this is a sort of a proprietary network for trucking at fuel stations. Since we didn't ride the Visa or Mastercard rails but we had a proprietary network, it allows us to get much more data. And then we presented that data and analyzed the data, and gave much greater value add to our clients. So again, it was the power of differentiation in the early days.
Now of course it's much more widespread. And then with Xylem finally, clearly what you’re trying to do is create that sort of connected water utility, all the way from meters down to operating equipment, to enable better billing systems to enable optimized system performance, productivity, manning of the equipment, etc.
It's always been fascinating for me, whatever the application is, sort of data and digital has always been a way to drive greater efficiency and insight.
This is one of the things I loved about your background. Obviously, I haven't had a chance to work with you, but at Xylem, it was that knowledge of the industry, the digital, if you will, transformation of that. And then of course the absolutely critical element of, getting the right people. And as Jeff Morris said, getting the right people on the bus, as he likes to say!
So, you joined General Electric in 1998, leadership roles across HR and global quality, and you mentioned a moment ago, about 2003 and ’04, some of the work you did on the fleet side. What a phenomenal time to be in the company working under the legendary Jack Welch at the time! What did you learn being at the intersection of people and quality?
Yeah. Six Sigma in GE was about three things. First was of course the traditional driving productivity, reducing costs, process improvement, etc., and that was a large part of what we did, but that was just one leg of the stool. The second leg was around ‘At the customer for the customer,’ which is what we called it, which was basically a way for us to deploy the Six Sigma technology to our customers and clients on a selective basis.
And that enabled us to provide a value add and differentiation by sharing our sort of technology of six Sigma if you will, and it enabled the stickiness and what we would call ‘At the customer for the customer.’ So, it was a way for us to get closer to our clients and their understanding and create a sort of a bond.
Then the third, and arguably Jack always called this the most important leg, around talent development. And that's how I was in the role as a quality leader with my background in HR, which was essentially around developing our top talent usually in their early career, these typically tended to be great sales leaders, great manufacturing leaders, who are energized and motivated by day to day, week to week, month to month successes, and they have direct teams that they lead. And then plucking them out of that role, which they do really well, and putting them into a sort of a black belt role or a master black belt role, where really what they have to do is lead by influence. And they see that it's more strategic, it's more sort of systemic change, and they have to then apply their influencing skills, they have to look at success in longer increments of six to 12 months. It's a mindset shift, and it really creates a lot of growth for them, from being able to personally deploy and drive success, to having to drive it through the enterprise and consider things like change management and, stakeholder engagement, etc., etc.
So, it's a great development experience. And that's really what was the core of why we had made it a sort of a widespread enterprise-wide program, and it was hugely successful at that time.
It certainly was, and the diaspore of GE has gone onto many different industry-leading roles and taking some of those best practices as well. Honestly, it still in many cases probably hasn't caught up to the bar that you guys set way back when either, at least at a kind of solidified corporate level. There’s still a lot of best practices yet to be built I imagine out there, based on this three-legged stool model.
So, you ultimately joined Xylem in 2015 after having served in executive leadership roles at Ceridian and Babcock & Wilcox, as you mentioned. Xylem at the time had recently emerged as the successor operating company to the water equipment assets held by ITT. So, what ultimately attracted you to the industry and the company at that time?
Yeah, thanks, Ken. For me when I was exiting Babcock & Wilcox, which had gone through a split, and I was predominantly focused on the defense business there. To me, there are a couple of things that attracted me about Xylem, one was it was a truly global company, and I missed that a little bit from Babcock & Wilcox and Ceridian. But it was truly a global company. We've got not just a US company operating globally, but a global company.
Second, even though we primarily focused on one industry, the water industry, we dealt across multiple technologies, depending on all the services that we provided to the water industry. So, it was multiple technologies and multiple revenue streams, it was a very interesting business with multiple technologies, multiple revenue streams, but focused on one industry and global, and it was a strong company – generated good cash flow, a strong balance sheet. And then of course I loved the people whom I spoke to, and I met with, and perhaps the most important of all was that there was a sort of common thread as you called it, which was this sense of higher purpose of wanting to leave the world a better place. Certainly, being focused operationally and commercially but having a higher purpose, and the water mission which was really like a glue that held the company together, despite being as disparate as it was.
And so that was really refreshing and energizing for me at that stage, and certainly don't regret it for a second.
Yeah, and I share the admiration for the team and for the company, having worked with you guys on the census acquisition and a number of other initiatives as well. Watching that that ELT and operation around Patrick Decker is still a high point, I think, in exposure to such industrial companies as well.
So, speaking of the ELT, under your HR leadership as part of that team, Xylem is now of course a leading global water technology company, with market caps of about $20-Billion, revenues of $5 billion, approximately employing 17,000 employees, 55 countries. Going back and thinking about 2015, how would you characterize the challenge you and that leadership team faced at the time, and what was your strategy for growing the company?
Thanks, Ken. Yeah, as you said, I've just recently retired, so I'm speaking on my behalf and I'm not with Xylem anymore, but for me, I think the history of Xylem, as you said, it was coming out of ITT. When Xylem was formed, it was really a collection of companies coming out of ITT, tied together, and positioned as a pure-play water company to the street and the street loved it. There were high expectations, but the team was not able to deliver on for successive quarters. So, the first thing when Patrick joined probably mid-2014 and I followed about a year later, the first thing was to ensure that we had the credibility of delivering results. Because I think you need to be able to eat your vegetables before you get to the dessert, as you would say.
That was the first thing we did. We focused on operational success and delivering on our performance. And then what we did was we articulated a strategy, we talked about our top five key strategic pillars, and we stuck to those top five strategies. What we did under them might change year to year, but we created a consistency around what our focus was going to be, which was a little refreshing from the first sort of five years of Xylem as the public company where, because of the pressures of under-delivering, I think they kept changing their strategy. So that was one, one core aspect.
And then specifically from a growth perspective, the team did a sort of a value mapping exercise and identified three key areas of growth. One of which was systems intelligence, which is what led to a number of our technology acquisitions, led by Sensus which helped us with, was the sort of the big one. And then we did a number of other acquisitions, and built up our portfolio around our digital capabilities, and were able to have credibility in delivering them because we had domain knowledge around the equipment, and the processes, and then when you combine them with digital, that's a power that the clients really appreciated.
So that was really it. And then the other two areas of focus from our value mapping, exercises were treatment and industrial services. And I think our next phase of growth is going to be focusing on us strengthening our capabilities in those areas so that we can expand more into the industrial sector and more into advanced treatment technologies.
So that's in a nutshell of what we've been focused on. And I think the key area is focus, and execution and delivery.
Absolutely, agree on that and who could argue with the market trajectory now, Xylem looking back from the 2015 mark, so you guys obviously did very well in terms of steering that ship.
You spoke of digital a moment ago, the emergence of digital, of course, has affected pretty much every industrial domain, defining new roles, business models, and new markets. What trends have you seen in digital during your time, and how have you helped prepare your organizations for their respective digital transformations?
In my experience it's really always about the people, right? It's about behavior, whether it's getting the behavior change and adoption internally or even with our customers and our client groups. So, I think enabling that behavior change, that mindset, that paradigm, that's always been a critical issue. And then of course from a technical point of view, you've got to ensure that your data is clean, and you have consistency and rigor in your processes to maintain that data, etc.
But the biggest issue is always the behavioral aspect. And for us, it was one of those, all of the above kinds of things. You do a lot of communication, you do education, you drive incentives, but you make sure that it's something that people talk about. You try to drive it into your culture, you try to ensure that, people who are not from the digital, but from the heritage technologies, don't feel threatened, don't feel that this is the favorite child, etc. So, I think it's an ongoing process, it's certainly something that we've worked very hard for, and also help our customers to the extent that we can in terms of driving this sort of change management within their organizations because for them also that's one of the most critical aspects is how do we get adoption to truly get the full realization of the capabilities that digital can help drive.
Looking at executive leadership, you have – I don't know – have you counted over your career how many people you've placed at the various companies in executive leadership roles?
No, I would have to research it!
I'm just going to guess it's in the hundreds as I look across your background and I might be low on that one. But, you know what I always love about people who have such a platform in terms of their perspective of having done something for so long, is that they come away with really deep insights, and so I'm curious; when you think about the top traits that you've looked for in an executive leadership, 1) what would you characterize as those, and 2) to what degree do you think that profile has changed over your career?
I have always looked at it and maybe this comes out of GE as well is, my philosophy has always been to hire for who the person is rather than what they know. Now obviously there are some exceptions when you're looking for deep technical talent or R&D and things like that, but for the most part for leadership roles, as you called it, for the most part, I would say we would always focus on, who the person is rather than what they know. And the idea being that if anyone whom you pick is going to be reasonably smart in many ways knowledge is one of the easier things to acquire rather than changing who you are.
But when I say to fit it's not necessarily about a fit from everyone having the same style or the same way of thinking, etc. but it's that sort of core values, core thread. And like Xylem’s case, this sort of passion for a higher purpose and wanting to make a difference and the passion for water, because that really would be something that you can work with and drive.
In terms of traits, I would summarize it as to getting the right balance between self-confidence and humility. I think if you find someone as close to the right balance as you can, I find that is a great leadership combination. Someone who is confident and is willing to take the risk is willing to make the investments, is willing to bet on people, but at the same time has the humility to listen, to learn, to ask for help. And I think if you get that balance, I think you create a great organization and a great leader. So that's been my sort of outlook, what I’ve been looking for is does this person have the right balance between self-confidence and humility? And then do they have the passion for what our core purpose and goals are?
You think about the talent acquisition industry, right, to help find those types of people as you've listed, generally, the idea of a headhunter or executive search recruiter, or whatever you want to call them, has pretty much been the same since probably the 1950s; I have a Rolodex, I have a phone and I can find you the right people from my network in that regard, what are some of the trends that you've seen in talent acquisition during your time and really, how do you see the future of this space changing over the next decade?
So, the talent acquisition within the HR space is probably the area where there have been the most leveraging of digital technologies. And I worked earlier for the last few years, I have a friend who's a professor at Columbia and he's been working on trying to get the right questions which will be great predictors for hiring. And his focus has really been more on the volume hiring, for call center associates and customer service reps, etc., and I think there's been some great work and he's been able to leverage a lot of data, and like him, there have been several who have done. So, there's been a lot of work in leveraging digital technology for talent acquisition in the entry-level, or for certain targeted roles.
Where I have not been exposed to as much so far has been more in the middle and the executive levels, and I think that's perhaps an opportunity for us to find a better way to leverage digital technologies, to be able to maybe transform the way we do search, maybe disrupt the way we do search. And I think also, one of the things I'm doing post-retirement is - I've got an advisory board position with a startup company in California, which is looking at finding ways that they can leverage digital technologies, to drive further efficiencies and potentially disruption in the executive search space. So, I guess more to come there, but I think that it's certainly an area where time will tell whether it's ripe for a digital evolution, or whether the traditional ways are more effective, which I'm thinking that maybe we might have some success with leveraging digital technologies there.
Yeah, I had Jeff Christian sometime last year on a podcast, and he’s of course the world-famous exec search professional having recruited Carly Fiorina at the time for HP, and he describes the world as a pre-LinkedIn and post-LinkedIn. He said that’s been probably the single biggest change in that industry in terms of the ability to have, if you will, a global database in that regard. And I have to imagine if that simple tool as we would call social media, is that impactful that there are others behind it?
That's a great sort of database and research, and that's certainly changed the way they do research within the area. But then is our getting that match and other correlations that could be predictors for match beyond just human judgment, and I think that's the next frontier I would think.
Yeah, and it sounds like you're already well plugged into that as well. That, I think, will be a very hot area and certainly, we're looking at it as well.
Speaking of the legacy or heritage, if you will, the world economic forum has called this past 18 months, The Great Reset, of course, because of the impact of COVID which, knock on wood, hopefully, we're climbing out of, slowly but surely. Let me ask, do you see a new normal emerging from this, in terms of people, may be working more from home or the change in roles or others? What would you forecast to be the largest changes coming out of this?
Yeah. So, I think unquestionably there's the world is going to change post COVID, pre-COVID/post COVID, it's going to be in so many areas, because this has really been a global issue.
From a physical point of view, what I've been talking to peers and what we've been doing is, I think a lot of companies are moving towards this sort of hybrid model where you work a few days in the office, to ensure that you have the social interactions and the ability to build bonds and build relationships, etc. But yet also work for a few days from home and that allows you the productivity and all the benefits of that. So, I think the hybrid is probably where most companies are heading towards because I think that might be an ability to do the best of both worlds if you will, but it's going to be a new paradigm and a new model.
And I think time will tell, there will be some companies that would move back to the hundred percent in office, everyone, and we see some of those announcements. Similarly, we also see some announcements of companies saying, we're never going back to the offices and, we are going to be a hundred percent virtual.
I don't think a hundred percent virtual is long-term because I think human beings are social animals. And at the end of the day what this is going to do from a sort of a social, from a mental framework, if people are more disconnected, I think that time will tell in that point of view. Particularly I think, people who are just coming out of school and colleges and they don't really have those bonds and the ability to navigate an organization, and really get to know how things work which is so critical for success.
So, I think that there will always be a place for some sort of physical interaction space. It needs not to be as much, but I think there’s always going to be that element.
Yeah, I like your thought about the hybrid. We are certainly seeing extremes, talking about certain companies saying we have no longer have a headquarters per se. And I wonder how much of that is for cost reasons or tax reasons many times versus the true efficiency or effectiveness. But it sounds to me like there are probably some great opportunities again, for digital technologies to help create, if you will, some of those bonds where somebody’s on a fractional basis in the office, and out of the office as well.
Absolutely, but really the digital technologies create great opportunities, but also a lot of challenges. I think that's where particularly for some of the earlier entry-level jobs, where you have a lot of privacy issues and privacy concerns, and you need to be able to remain connected. And so, therefore, is it monitoring, etc. So, there are a number of issues that would potentially be coming up in addition to the productivity opportunity.
And again, it sounds like you're well plugged into some of these, because I think the digital opportunities are really probably still largely ahead of us in terms of creating say tools and approaches for HR organizations to manage some of this, especially at the type of scale that you've been used to in the past.
I'm sure the question many of our listeners are thinking really, what's next for you Kairus?
Yeah. I've been retired for two weeks now, maybe, or a week! So, enjoying it right now…
So, you get to take a little time off!
I would like to spend time, obviously with friends and family and traveling, etc., probably some amount of time on that, but I certainly want to continue to remain engaged, so I will be looking for maybe working six to eight months a year if I could in, either a pro bono capacity with some of the nonprofits or working on a sort of interim executive kind of role. And maybe if I’ve got some more advisory opportunities or advisory board kind of position, I would be looking for those. But I'm trying to get a more balanced view of spending my time between some sort of community giving back, continuing to remain engaged in the corporate world, and then having some time with friends and family and travel etc. So, let's see how I get that mix.
It sounds like you've got a good start already. I've set off and have always viewed life as being divided into three stages, there's your learning stage, your earning stage, and then returning stage. And it sounds like you're clearly in that phase three, and so I applaud you in terms of your focus on pro bono and really giving back, and so hopefully we'll be able to help on some of those fronts as well.
Final a final question I always like to ask, where do you personally find your inspiration? Thinking books, people, online, etc.
Every company that I've been with, I've always made it a point to really get to know the people. Given my role. really, more than programs and policies, I really wanted to get to know the people and that's always been my inspiration. So, every week wherever I was, after the first few months of the job, once I got to know the company and the people, I always made it a point to have 30-minute catch-up sessions with people across the organization. I would set up no agenda, no specific purpose, but just have the sort of, ‘Hey, what's going on in your world?’
And that really gave me great insights. Not only about what was really going on, and disconnected from where we were from headquarters, but also getting to know the people, what motivates them, what drives them, what are some of their energizers? And I, for me that gave me a lot of energy that gave me a lot of insight, and I think it was one of the best ways for me to spend time, having these one-on-one calls for three to five people every week.
It's probably the same reason I could give for doing these podcasts. It's a labor of love because I appreciate smart people and the insights that you can almost never predict coming out of these things with the perspectives. And perhaps you should start your own podcast series! We'll call it Six Sigma talent, how about that? I think you could do well at that. If nothing else, there's probably a great book behind it as well.
So Kairus, thank you for spending this time with us today.
Thank you, Ken. Thank you. And thank you to all your listeners and wish you and your company the very, very best. I'm sure you guys have got a very exciting model with your sort of three areas of focus and look forward to continuing to stay connected.
Absolutely. This has been Kairus Tarapore, former Chief Human Resources Officer at Xylem, and a lifelong practitioner of Six Sigma talent. Thank you for listening and please join us next week for our next momentum digital thread podcast.
Thank you and have a great day.